A common complaint running through some reviews of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that it lacks coherence, or that it has too many subplots for its own good. But I have to confess that for me, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be a lesser film without these tangents. These small character moments are what make it the intelligent, character-driven spy tale that it is.
Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a former British intelligence officer who’s secretly brought back to root out a Soviet mole in the agency. Physically, there’s something tortoise-like about Smiley--whether it’s in the way he looks, with his curled upper lip and large-framed glasses, or the deliberateness of his movements and speech--but his mind is far from slow; he’s always keenly aware of his environment, alert to anything that doesn’t feel right, even if he can’t put his finger on why. The men Smiley’s been called in to investigate are an intimidating lot played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, and David Dencik. They supply most of the film’s scowling, pensive looks, and their performances are nicely ominous, even if most of their scowls are no more than red herrings.
But such is the way Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré works. It’s a film that deals more in subtext, impressions, and atmosphere than in exposition and certainty. Every aspect, from its framing and lighting to production design, costumes, and music, hints at the portentous. You could call it a thriller I suppose, but it’s really more of a cut-and-dried mystery haunted by perpetual storm clouds. There aren’t any fancy gadgets or car chases here, and only a limited amount of sneaking around. Still, the overall effect of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of constant dread. It’s refusal to explain much of anything can result in some head-scratching, but it’s also the reason why it's able to move as nimbly as it does. To me, it seems that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is what more adult thrillers should be--intelligent, brisk but unhurried, and wary of what's overly familiar.